Sometimes, a verse seizes us in its talons


HOPEWELL, N.J. -- Once, many years ago in synagogue during the High Holidays, I was leading my congregation in prayer as usual (I'm a rabbi) when a verse suddenly popped out at me from the prayer book that had never been there before:

"They lie in unmarked graves," ran the line, "their very lives begrudged them."

I burst into tears up there on the bimah, and my congregation read on without me.

I had had a miscarriage that previous spring, but on that day in synagogue that experience was nowhere (or so I thought) on my mind. Looking back, though, to April, I realized that I had not grieved my small loss. Instead, I had spent two numb days in the hospital, and then had hurled myself aggressively back at life.

In a sense, I had left a part of me still back there on the ward, and in an unguarded moment -- which is what prayer is -- I had returned to collect it.

"They lie in unmarked graves," ran the verse. "Their very lives begrudged them," and I finally heard it.

A phrase leaped out

The next year, I think it was, on Rosh Hashana morning, I looked out from the bimah to see Holly, a young widow, crying quietly into her hand during the prayer called the Amidah. For the first time since her husband's death, Holly had come to synagogue with a new boyfriend. After services, I looked for her.

"I'm fine," she said to me. "I had this incredible moment."

And she described how this phrase had just leaped out at her from the prayer book: "Oomehkayem ehmunato leshaynay afar. God keeps faith with those who sleep in dust."

fTC "And I realized," she told me, "that I'd been walking around so guilty -- trying to be somehow with both my dead husband and with my boyfriend at the same time. And I couldn't do it. And suddenly it was so quiet in the sanctuary," she said. "And I swear I saw my own name on the page. It said, "GOD keeps faith with those who sleep in dust, Holly. Not you. God."

Bread into the water

One tashlich -- the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashana, when everybody walks down to the river to symbolically throw their year's sins into the water -- Lew, a congregant who was around 60, started to cry. He had been unemployed for two years, and he was very bitter. No one would even look at his resume, he told anyone who asked, because he was over 40; because our culture is so ageist.

"I was throwing my bits of bread into the water like every year," Lew told me later, "and I was thinking what I was always thinking, which was: "Oh, this is what society's done to you, Lew, just thrown you down a river."

"And suddenly," he said, "we were saying, 'Cast all of your sins into the depths of the sea' ["v'tashlich bim-tzu-loat yahm"], and the word 'your,' " he said, "just jumped right at me. 'Cast your sins,' the verse said, 'into the depths of the sea.'

"And I started to cry," he said, "because I realized that I'd been throwing in everyone's sins but my own. My sin, I saw for the first time: It was this endless bitterness. And it was time to cast it into the sea."

"Go to Ninevah"

It's late in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, and a congregant named Danny, in his late 20s, is leading us in chanting the book of Jonah, as is traditional, and I see -- because I'm sharing the book with Danny upon the bimah -- one tear plop onto the Hebrew page.

Later Danny tells me, "Something happened."

And he tells me the story of Jonah: "God says to Jonah," says Danny, "Go to Nineveh, Jonah. Go to Nineveh, you idiot -- that's your destiny. Can't you see? You're going to end up there anyway -- and it's the right place for you.

"But no," Danny continues, "Jonah runs in the 180-degree opposite direction -- and there are storms and this crazy lottery, sailors who throw him overboard, this giant fish who eats him.

"All of a sudden," says Danny "I was up there on the bimah, and it was totally silent in the sanctuary. And I heard myself chanting about me. This was my life I was broadcasting to everyone. Teachers, friends, my sister, everyone had said to me for years, 'Danny, go to Nineveh. Why do you always run in the most painful opposite direction?' "

The courage to feel

It's quiet in the synagogue during the High Holidays. Despite the shofar's loud blasting and the priests' terrifying duchaning, despite the litanies of martyrs and the revisiting of animals sacrificed in deserts -- it's quiet. And in this quiet, prayer sometimes gives us a gift: the courage to feel what frightens us.

"No one converses with me besides myself," is how Nietzsche put it. "And my voice reaches me as the voice of one dying."

Grief that we've remaindered in a hospital; life that we've been too guilty to inscribe; time that we've held hostage to our bitterness; our very choices flailing against what fits us. Pieces of ourselves, abandoned here and there.

It's quiet in the synagogue, and a verse seizes us in its talons -- and makes us prey. And that "still small voice" is just ours.

"They lie in unmarked graves," ran the prayer when I needed it. "Their very lives begrudged them. In far-off forests and in lonely fields. And the substance of many is scattered by the winds to the earth's four corners. Yet they shall not be forgotten. We take them into our hearts, and give them a place. AMEN."

"When the storyteller is loyal to the story," wrote Hannah Arendt, "there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful," she wrote, "will hear the voice of silence."

Susan Schnur is a rabbi in Hopewell, New Jersey.

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